Thursday, March 14, 2019

Jane Campion | The Portrait of a Lady

marching into farce
by Douglas Messerli

Laura Jones (screenplay), Jane Campion (director) The Portrait of a Lady / 1997

Watching Jane Campion’s film version of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady yesterday, I suddenly wondered whether or not I had really read the book years earlier, a novel I truly loved. So unsure was I that I quickly checked with the often-unreliable Wikipedia entry to simply re-confirm the plot. Roger Ebert was correct, the plot was basically the same, even if Campion determined to recontextualize the James work within a feminist perspective, a strange thing since if you read James intelligently, the work is already an early feminist masterwork.
      Although Ebert felt the acting was quite excellent, I was equally appalled by the Australian-born Nicole Kidman (as the heroine Isabel Archer) playing an American who often pretends she might be British. Barbara Hershey, the usually excellent actress, playing Madame Merle, as an American émigré ineffectually portraying a Rome-living continental. The script by Laura Jones renders James’ involuted and thoughtful sentences into bits of arch dialogue that appears straight out of a kind of comic-theater version of turn-of-the-century wit.
      Everything seemed to me like a klutzy vision of what the supposedly beautiful Isabelle Archer—Kidman’s vision was certainly lovely, but hardly worthy of the attentions of all the men, Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), her cousin Ralph (Martin Donovan), a beautifully wasted man, and others who long for her. That she chooses the totally despicable and unappealing Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich) reveals that this seemingly independent woman is not only stubbornly willful but utterly stupid. Naivété is just fine, but utter ignorance, which this film projects, makes for a most unpleasant or, at least, uninteresting heroine.
      No matter how much we might admire Isabel’s sense of independence and her desire to seek out the world into which she has suddenly been projected by both her supposed beauty and sudden wealth, it is hard to sympathize with Campion’s vision of her, as she turns away, one by one, all the men she should have married for the most odious version of the male species. As Ebert also asks:

            Why, for example, does Isabel marry Osmond? In the novel
            there is no mystery. He is an Artist--able to pose, at least during
            their courtship, as a man who lives on a higher plane. In Campion's
            film, Osmond is never allowed the slightest plausibility. Malkovich
            plays him as a snaky, sinister poseur, tobacco smoke coiling past
            his hooded eyes. The crucial distinction is: In the novel, Isabel
            marries him because she is an idealist, but in the movie because she
            is a masochist.

      No matter how one perceives Isabel’s stubborn eccentricities, we nonetheless know she is desperately unhappy in her marriage with Osmond, and we cannot help but admire her love of Osmond’s daughter, Pansy, who is actually Madame Merle’s daughter—perhaps through a sextual tryst with Osmond or another of her evil lovers. But even here, the Campion feminist does not truly speak out to demand that Osmond permit the girl to marry her beloved young art collector, but rather suddenly bows out of the situation in order to visit her beloved cousin, Ralph, who is now dying—the man whom, unknowingly to her, is behind her sudden wealth.
     If Campion’s Isabelle is to be seen as a feminist heroine, we might better look to James’ version, where a high-minded and idealist figure chooses to embrace life instead, as in this film, to embrace death and pose in grief in a typically brutal marriage that allows her no out.
    The Isabelle Archer who I knew from the novel, was an amazingly beautiful figure who floated in innocence through a world for which she was simply unprepared but came to comprehend herself through that terrible process.
     This Isabelle storms through the barriers without truly perceiving why she has gotten there. Whether or not she comes back as a servant to Osmond and a savior to Pansy hardly matters. She is so unreliable that, in the end, we hardly care whether she returns to her far superior lover, Lord Warburton. Campion and her actors (including Shelly Winters as the impossible-to-perceive wife of John Gielgud) turns this work from a remarkable psychological portrait into a ridiculous march into farce.

Los Angeles, March 14, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2019).

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